(Nairobi) – An Ethiopian government directive under a state of emergency contains overly broad and vague provisions that risk triggering a human rights crisis, Human Rights Watch said today in a legal analysis. The government should promptly repeal or revise all elements of the directive that are contrary to international law.
A woman cries as she attends a prayer session at Biftu Bole Lutheran Church during a prayer and candle ceremony for those who died in the town of Bishoftu during Ireecha, the thanksgiving festival for the Oromo people, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 9, 2016.
© REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
On October 9, 2016, the government announced a six-month state of emergency following the destruction of some government buildings and private property by demonstrators. Over the past year, security forces have killed hundreds of protesters and detained tens of thousands in two regions where there have been numerous protests over government policies.
“Ethiopia’s state of emergency bans nearly all speech that the government disagrees with anywhere in the country for at least six months,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The state of emergency hands the army new sweeping powers to crack down on demonstrators, further limiting the space for peaceful dissent.”
Legal Analysis of Ethiopia’s State of Emergency
Under the new state of emergency, the army can be deployed country-wide for at least six months. The implementing directive prescribes draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly that go far beyond what is permissible under international law and signal an increased militarized response to the situation. The directive effectively codifies many of the security forces’ abusive tactics that Human Rights Watch has documented since the protests began.
The directive includes far-reaching restrictions on sharing information on social media, watching diaspora television stations, and closing businesses as a gesture of protest, as well as curtailing opposition parties’ ability to communicate with the media. It specifically bans writing or sharing material via any platform that “could create misunderstanding between people or unrest.”
It bans all protests without government permission and permits arrest without court order in “a place assigned by the command post until the end of the state of emergency.” It also permits “rehabilitation” – a euphemism for short-term detention often involving physical punishment. Many of these restrictions are country-wide and not limited to the two of Ethiopia’s nine regions where most of the unrest took place.
Under international law, during a state of emergency a government may only suspend certain rights to the extent permitted by the “exigencies of the situation.” Many of the measures, including the restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association go far beyond what is permitted under international law.
The government reports that since the state of emergency began, 1,600 people have been arrested, including about 50 for closing their businesses. Human Rights Watch also has received unconfirmed reports of unlawful killings, mass arrests, and looting of houses and businesses by the security forces. There have been some armed clashes between security forces and unidentified groups. Mobile phone access to the internet has been blocked since October 5. Addis Standard, a monthly English language magazine and one of the few independent publications left in Ethiopia, announced on October 25 that it was halting publication of its print edition due to state-of-emergency restrictions.
Large-scale, and mainly peaceful anti-government protests have been sweeping through Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, since November 2015, and the Amhara region since July 2016. Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 500 people during protests over the last year. These protests occurred in a context of the near-total closure of political space.
Protesters have voiced a variety of concerns, including issues related to development, the lack of political space, the brutality of the security forces, and domination of economic and political affairs by people affiliated with the ruling party. The emergency measures send a strong and chilling message that rather than dealing with expressed grievances and ensuring accountability for violence by both government forces and protesters, the government will continue and probably escalate the militarized response.
On October 2, in Bishoftu, a town 40 kilometers southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, tensions ignited at the annual Irreecha festival – an important Oromo cultural event that draws millions of people each year. Security forces confronted huge crowds with tear gas and fired shots and scores of people then died during a stampede. Since then, alleged demonstrators have damaged a number of government buildings and private businesses perceived to be close to the ruling party, setting some on fire.
The government has in part blamed human rights groups seeking to document violations of international law for the recent unrest. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for an independent and credible investigation into the security force response to the protests and to the deaths in Bishoftu.
“Many of the abuses committed by security forces since November 2015 have now been codified under the state of emergency,” Horne said. “Trying to use the legal cover of a state of emergency as a pretext for the widespread suspension of rights not only violates the government’s international legal obligations, but will exacerbate tensions and long-term grievances, and risks plunging Ethiopia into a greater crisis.”